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Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity

Author(s):Goldin, Claudia
Reviewer(s):Folbre, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (January 2022).

Claudia Goldin. Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. xii + 344 pp. $27.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-6912-0178-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Folbre, Professor Emerita of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.


Gender inequality in earnings can’t be entirely blamed on discriminatory preferences, because it is deeply inscribed in the institutional structure and technology of modern economies. In her latest book, Career and Family, Claudia Goldin drives this point home. Along the way, she provides a compelling history of the ways in which successive cohorts of college-educated women in the U.S. managed to engineer new routes of economic opportunity and lead a “quiet revolution” in gender roles.  In her view, the biggest roadblock they now face–conflicting demands of work and family–is emblematic of a larger conflict between efficiency and equity.

Her basic argument will be familiar to fans of her previous research, especially her 2006 American Economic Review article “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family.” This book, aimed at a larger audience, includes biographical narratives that illustrate the ways in which individual women built on the successes of previous generations to claim opportunities for themselves. At the same time, it emphasizes a basic dilemma that limits women’s room for maneuver.

Work is greedy, and families are needy. Women prefer the flexibility to commit to both but pay a high price for “having it all” because the marketplace pays a premium for professionals and managers willing to work long hours.  Even high-powered couples who might prefer to equitably share family care responsibilities find it costly, requiring a huge sacrifice of potential earnings from a primary—and highly specialized– breadwinner. The trade-off can best be alleviated by changes in the temporal demands of high-wage employment, but these demands are largely driven by gains from specialization, continuity, and flexibility on the job.

The basic roadmap of career/family conflict is well-traveled. Goldin’s distinctive contribution lies in her economic analysis. While some legal scholars like Joan Williams and Nancy Segal (2003) apply terms such as “family responsibility discrimination,” Goldin highlights the impact of relative prices on both the demand side and the supply side of the labor market.  Whether or not employers have discriminatory attitudes, they prefer to hire—and are willing to pay a premium for—ideal workers willing to put in long hours. Some highly educated women find ways around the problem; others voluntarily sacrifice career prospects in return for a package that includes both greater affluence and more time for their children.

While compelling in many respects, this economic analysis relies heavily on paradigmatic neoclassical assumptions.  By Goldin’s account, care for family members represents a personal preference rather than a productive contribution, and market wages are accurate markers of productivity. In my view, she defines efficiency too narrowly, overlooking the possibility that current institutional structures governing interactions between the family, the market and the state are inefficient as well as unfair.

Gender specialization in marriage has mixed consequences. Mothers without access to independent income face significant financial risks, especially if they lack personal wealth. Divorce has more negative consequences for caregivers than for breadwinners, and the threat of significant reduction in post-divorce living standards reduces women’s bargaining power within families. As Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak (2003) explain, contracting and bargaining problems can undermine Pareto optimality in marriage; women are increasingly aware of the potential costs of economic dependence. Fathers who devote little time to their children may fail to develop a close relationship with them, with adverse consequences for family members that can neutralize the benefits of higher income (Petts et al. 2020). Specialization can lead to outcomes that leave everyone worse off.

The decision to raise children or care for other dependent family members can be described as an effort to maximize individual utility. However, such effort is constrained by costs that are shaped by social institutions beyond the market, and it leads to consequences for economy as a whole—such as the future supply of workers and taxpayers.  The increasing costs and risks of raising children help explain why fertility rates in the U.S. (as in many other countries) have fallen far below replacement levels.  Research on the fiscal consequences of fertility decline raises important questions regarding the “efficient” distribution of the costs of investment in human capabilities (Wolf et al. 2011).

Just as greater family income doesn’t always signal greater family efficiency, higher earnings don’t always signal higher productivity. Goldin and others (e.g., Cha and Weeden 2014) convincingly show that earnings per hour in the U.S. increase substantially with total hours of work.  However, a wage premium does not necessarily imply a total compensation premium:  non-wage compensation (including employee benefits) can exceed 40% of total compensation for high earners, and much of it represents a fixed cost that is amortized over increased hours of employment (Gittleman and Pierce 2013).

Many customers and clients value flexibility and continuity, but these needs can potentially be met by institutional reorganization, such team-based services. Problems with lack of continuity in the U.S. health care system have less to do with providers’ hours on the job than with specialization and institutional incentives to cut costs (Frey 2018). Indeed, long hours of health care provision can lead to serious errors; the medical profession validated concerns about the adverse effects of hospital residents’ extreme hours in 2003 when it placed strict limits on shift lengths (Keller et al. 2009).

Bankers and CEOs may well prefer subordinates who are at their beck and call. Is this a productivity-related imperative or a privilege of managerial power? Both institutional inertia and information problems complicate the answer to this question. Like a college diploma that is costly to acquire but not actually necessary for effective job performance, willingness to work long hours may be a signal of potential worker effort that moves job applicants to the head of the hiring queue. Cha and Weeden (2014) offer some evidence that rat-race effects push many into longer work hours than they would prefer. This coordination problem helps explain public choices to regulate hours of employment.

Trade-offs are often a fact of life, and public policies can’t always assuage them. Potential gains from specialization, continuity, job-specific skills, and single-mindedness will always loom large—in both careers and families. On the other hand, life is a portfolio that invites diversification, and many important assets—like healthy family and community members– are undervalued simply because they can’t be bought and sold. Much depends on how gains are defined, and for whom.

Goldin calls out the inequitable division of labor that assigns women more responsibility than men for family care, but her focus on career-oriented college-educated women deflects attention from other dimensions of inequality.  Women without a college education have been far less successful than their more credentialed counterparts at winning work-family benefits such as paid family leave from their employers (Adelstein and Peters 2019). International comparisons show that the effect of national family policies is strongly mediated by earnings inequality—with greatest benefits for low earners (Hook and Paek 2020).

Earnings inequality can reduce the incentives for more affluent women to support progressive family policies that would increase public investments in care infrastructure, and even encourage indifference toward the many low-wage women–from nannies and housecleaners to childcare and eldercare workers–who help keep the price of outsourced domestic services relatively low. In the U.S., college-educated mothers living in cities with large numbers of women immigrants are able to put in longer hours on the job (and also raise more children) than those living in comparable cities (Cortés and Pan 2019).

From a market-centric perspective, this represents an efficient outcome. However, in my book, it doesn’t qualify as a grand convergence or a gender revolution.


Adelstein, Shirley, and H. Elizabeth Peters. 2019. “Parents’ Access to Work-Family Supports.” The Urban Institute. Accessed January 2, 2022.

Cha, Youngjoo, and Kim A. Weeden. 2014. “Overwork and the Slow Convergence in the Gender Gap in Wages.” American Sociological Review 79:3, 457-484.

Cortés, Patricia, and Jessica Pan. 2019. “When Time Binds: Substitutes for Household Production, Returns to Working Long Hours, and the Skilled Gender Wage Gap.” Journal of Labor Economics 37:2, 351-398.

Frey, John J. 2018. “Colluding with the Decline of Continuity.” The Annals of Family Medicine 16:6, 488-489.

Gittleman, Maury, and Brooks Pierce. 2013. “An Improved Measure of Inter-Industry Pay Differentials.” Journal of Economic and Social Measurement 38:3, 229-242.

Goldin, Claudia. 2006. “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family.” American Economic Review 96: 2, 1-21.

Hook, Jennifer L., and Eunjeong Paek. 2020. “National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects Across and Within Countries.” American Sociological Review 85:3, 381-416.

Keller, Simone M., Phyllis Berryman, and Eileen Lukes. 2009. “Effects of Extended Work Shifts and Shift Work on Patient Safety, Productivity, and Employee Health.” Aaohn Journal 57:12, 497-504.

Lundberg, Shelly, and Robert A. Pollak. 2003. “Efficiency in Marriage.” Review of Economics of the Household 1:3, 153-167.

Petts, Richard J., Chris Knoester, and Jane Waldfogel. 2020. “Fathers’ Paternity Leave-Taking and Children’s Perceptions of Father-Child Relationships in the United States.” Sex Roles 82:3, 173-188.

Williams, Joan C., and Nancy Segal. 2003. “Beyond the Maternal Wall: Relief for Family Caregivers who are Discriminated Against on the Job.” Harvard Women’s Law Journal 26, 77-162.

Wolf, Douglas A., Ronald D. Lee, Timothy Miller, Gretchen Donehower, and Alexandre Genest. 2011. “Fiscal Externalities of Becoming a Parent.” Population and Development Review 37:2, 241-266.


Nancy Folbre is Professor Emerita of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems (New York: Verso, 2021).

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Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII